Bishops step back into politics with conscience considerations

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The U.S. bishops stepped firmly back into the political arena this week, with two moves aimed at influencing both government policies and Catholic voters. Taken together, the moves seem to indicate a new focus for the bishops’ conference on stressing issues of conscience in political debates.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, last Friday announced a new bishops’ “committee for religious freedom.” Set to employ two full-time staffers at the bishops’ D.C. headquarters, Dolan said the committee was aimed at fighting federal government programs or policies that “would infringe upon the right of conscience of people of faith.”

The bishops’ executive committee, which is chaired by Dolan, yesterday re-issued a 30-page document on the responsibilities of Catholic voters, along with a newly written two-page introduction that warns against “misguided appeals to `conscience’ to ignore fundamental moral claims.”

The new bishops’ committee, Dolan said, was partially motivated by new proposed guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services that would mandate the coverage of contraception and sterilization in private health insurance plans.

The bishops had previously campaigned for individuals to submit comments opposing the new guidelines, setting up a Web site,, and asking people to chime in before the end of a public comment period Sept. 30.

The policy is now under review by the Department of Health and Human Services.

As the bishops came back into the political realm this week, NCR commentators and reporters have been analyzing the moves.

Michael Sean Winters, over at his Distinctly Catholic blog yesterday, said the newly written introduction to “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a voting guide the bishops have issued every election year since 1976, appropriately toed the line between telling people how to vote, and telling them how to form their own consciences.

For stories and commentary posted to the NCR Web site regarding the bishops’ moves, see:

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